Tuesday, July 2, 2019
For the time being, I'm taking a break from fiction reading, mainly because I have a lot of film books to read for the summer film talks series I host Monday afternoons in Bryant Park in Manhattan. But I did want to mention the last novel I read, a few weeks ago, because it's one I enjoyed and that has stayed with me -- Lauren Wilkinson's American Spy.
Written in the first person, American Spy is about Marie Mitchell, a black woman from New York City who during the 1980s works for the FBI. Needless to say, she stands out in the bureau, both as a woman working in that old boy's club and as an African-American. Wilkinson makes it entirely clear and plausible, though, why Marie has chosen this career: her father was a New York City police officer, and most influential was her older sister, a compelling figure with whom she had a complex relationship. Since childhood, Marie's sister was somewhat obsessed with the idea of becoming a spy, and as an adult, she wound up joining the CIA. Her sister's example is one Marie followed in her choice of profession, and her sister, who died in a mysterious accident, is never far from her thoughts. By 1986, after several years working for the FBI, Marie finds that her career is floundering, so when she gets an offer from the CIA to join them temporarily to help them with a particular mission they say she is suited for, she takes it. But what specific job would the CIA need a young, black woman for? The answer: to get close to and help them discredit the president of the African country Burkina Faso. This is the real-life figure Thomas Sankara, a revolutionary leader of the time, who is sometimes called "Africa's Che Guevera".
In 1983, at the age of 33, Thomas Sankara took power after a popularly-supported coup d'etat in the former French colony of Upper Volta. Sankara renamed the country Burkina Faso, which means "Land of Incorruptible People". A Marxist and Pan-Africanist, he immediately set about introducing literacy and vaccination programs and pushing hard for equality for women in the country. He resisted foreign aid, sought debt reduction from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and nationalized much of Burkina Faso's land and natural resources. He was an energetic and very charismatic figure, popular in many parts of Africa, and naturally, considering his policies and rhetoric, he was not exactly regarded as a friend by the United States. Again, this is 1986, during the Cold War and the Ronald Reagan presidency. (It's also true that the former colonial ruling country, France, didn't take to Sankara either, but American Spy focuses on the American efforts to undermine him). What became of his presidency is shown in the book, and of course, if you don't know what happened going into the book, you can always look it up before you reach the book's end to find out. This is one of those novels where fact and fiction are blended and you know that part of the story has to end in a certain way, but Lauren Wilkinson's skills are such that the more you know about the historical record, the more you experience suspense while feeling a sense of deep melancholy. At least, I did.
American Spy is a number of things, and it succeeds on each level. It's a first-person character study and a political novel. It's a love story. It's a story about memory and history and the passing down of historical truth (Marie is telling her story, in 1992, to her two young sons). It deals with race and gender both in the United States and Africa, and as the title indicates, it does all this while telling an espionage tale. Lauren Wilkinson's novel is that rarest of things, a spy novel with a black protagonist. There are precious few, and aside from Sam Greenlee's 1969 book, The Spook Who Sat By the Door, none spring to my mind. It's remarkable though that so few have been written. Perhaps this is because spycraft in the United States (and in European countries as well?) is so predominantly the province of whites? In any event, the phenomenon of black identity and double consciousness, an idea explored by so many writers going back to W.E.B Du Bois, is one that melds perfectly with the spy novel. What does it mean to be an American, a black American, a woman who is a black American, a woman who is a black American who takes a job to bring down an African leader devoted to building a black nation that can be free of western imperialist control? What face do you present to your parents, your teachers, your friends, your professional associates, your children, and, finally, yourself?
American Spy is a rich book and a lovely, propulsive read. No wonder it's sticking with me.